The Adventures of Thomas, Lord Cochrane

By David Cordingly

Thomas. Lord Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald

The swashbuckling novels of Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester owe much of their inspiration to one man: Lord Cochrane, a seafaring Scot whose life was marked by adventure, adulation and scandal. David Cordingly reports.

The Real Master and Commander

The night was as dark as any invading force could have wished. In April 1809, with a heavy sea running, Captain Lord Cochrane was leading an audacious fireship attack against a French fleet anchored in Basque Roads on the west coast of France. Cochrane, with a few selected men, including his younger brother, Basil, was in the leading ship, which was an ‘explosion vessel’ of his own devising – a floating bomb packed with barrels of gun powder and hand grenades. When they were about half a mile from the French fleet, Cochrane lit the fuses, jumped down into the boat that was being towed astern, and urged his men to pull for their lives.

The wind caused the fuses to burn much faster than expected. Only minutes later, the vessel blew up, lighting up the sky with a lurid glare and hurling into the air a mass of burning timbers and exploding shells.

There was panic in the French fleet. All except two of the warships cut their anchor cables and went aground, exposing their hulls to the guns of the British fleet. The opportunity was squandered by Lord Gambier, the British commander-in-chief, who delayed sending in his ships. In the confused engagements that followed, only five French ships were destroyed – two of them having been set on fire by their own crews.

Thomas Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald, was a man of outstanding courage and tenacity. As a naval commander he was bold and resourceful, but he was also a fighter for radical causes and a champion of liberty. It is little wonder that his adventures have inspired numerous historical novelists, most notably Patrick O’Brian, who has made no secret of the fact that many of the plots of his celebrated series starring Captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon, Stephen Maturin, were based on Cochrane’s exploits. Indeed the first of these, Master and Commander (also the inspiration for the film starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany), is a faithful retelling of Cochrane’s actions in the diminutive warship Speedy.

No doubt O’Brian got the idea for the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin from a few brief references to Cochrane’s surgeon in The Autobiography of a Seaman, Cochrane’s racy account of his life as a naval officer. What O’Brian did not realise was that the friendship he created between his fictional characters was mirrored in real life: Cochrane’s surgeon, James Guthrie, not only followed his captain from ship to ship, but remained a lifelong friend. This is revealed in hitherto unpublished correspondence between Cochrane and Guthrie in the collections of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, which I came across while researching my biography of Cochrane. The letters are fascinating because they provide a vivid commentary on some of the highs and lows of Cochrane’s life, and reveal the extent of his determination to get his own back on his enemies: ‘What a base pack of rascals they are! I have got their b——s in a cloven stick and I will squeeze them.’

Like so many heroes, Cochrane was a flawed character with a temperament that led him into conflict and disputes. He imagined enemies where there were none, and made enemies of people who should have been his friends. When he died in 1860, The Times noted that he had outlived envy and malice, had suffered much, and triumphed at last.

‘History can produce few examples of such a man or of such achievements,’ it reported. ‘There have been greater heroes because there have been heroes with greater opportunities, but no soldier or sailor of modern times ever displayed a more extraordinary capacity than the man who now lies dead.’

On board the explosion vessel in the 1809 attack was a young midshipman, the future novelist Captain Marryat, who drew on his action-packed experiences of sailing with Cochrane as the basis for his popular adventure stories. Others followed in his wake. G.A. Henty, a prolific writer of patriotic tales for boys, produced a stirring account of the naval hero in his book With Cochrane the Dauntless: A Tale of the Exploits of Lord Cochrane in South American Waters, which was first published in 1897. C. S. Forester drew on events in Cochrane’s life for several of his Hornblower novels, notably The Happy Return, which is based on Cochrane’s exploits with the Chilean navy. But it is the work of O’Brian that owes most to Cochrane’s life.

The plots of three of the books in O’Brian’s sequence of novels are taken directly from events in Cochrane’s life. Master and Commander is a brilliantly evocative account of Cochrane’s career in the Speedy from the moment she sets sail from Port Mahon, Minorca, to her celebrated fight with the Spanish xebec frigate Gamo. O’Brian changes the name of the Speedyto Sophie and gives new names to her officers and men, but otherwise sticks to the story. The Sophie, like the Speedy, is finally captured by a powerful French squadron off Gibraltar, after a desperate chase, and O’Brian subsequently quotes verbatim from the court martial which Cochrane had to face because of the loss of his ship.

While the historical background and the Speedy’s exploits are faithfully followed by O’Brian, his characters rapidly take on a life of their own. Maturin, an Irishman who is a keen naturalist and an occasional spy, has little in common with Guthrie, who was Scottish and, after sharing many of Cochrane’s adventures, married and retired to a cottage in a village in Fife. Aubrey has Cochrane’s daring and enthusiasm for action, but is physically very different. Cochrane was a Scottish aristocrat, conspicuously tall and powerfully built with auburn hair and a prominent aquiline nose; he stooped a little ‘and had somewhat of a sailor’s gait in walking’.

Aubrey is barrel-chested, red-faced, and flaxen-haired, and is the son of an English general. Both Aubrey and Maturin have complicated love lives and women play a leading part in the succeeding novels. In contrast, Cochrane married a very young and very pretty orphan girl when he was in his thirties and, although she was involved in a number of adventures in Chile (I have unearthed letters revealing her brief but passionate love affair with Lord Auckland), Cochrane remained faithful to her until his death.

Cochrane, who was born in 1775, came from an ancient Scottish family with a rambling great house at Culross, on the banks of the Firth of Forth, a few miles upstream from Edinburgh. He was the eldest son of the ninth Earl of Dundonald, a man with a genius for invention, but a fatal inability to control his finances. The father’s rash investments in schemes to make coal tar bankrupted him and forced him to sell Culross Abbey House, an event that made an indelible mark on the young Cochrane and sparked his determination to earn his own fortune and buy back his ancestral home.

At the unusually late age of 17 Cochrane joined the Royal Navy and served on board a frigate commanded by his uncle, Captain (later Admiral) Alexander Cochrane. Thanks to Scottish influence in high places, Cochrane rose swiftly and in 1801, at the age of 26, he was promoted to the rank of Master and Commander and given command of the Speedy. It was during this period in the Mediterranean that he revealed his talents as a daring coastal raider, making use of ruses and stratagems to capture enemy shipping.

In 1807, with the help of his friend William Cobbett, a writer and campaigning journalist, Cochrane was elected MP for Westminster in a landmark election that attracted widespread publicity. He stood as a Radical and became a thorn in the side of ‘The Establishment’ because of his support for parliamentary reform and his exposure of corruption and abuses in the Navy. Sent back to sea in command of Imperieuse, a 38-gun frigate, he rapidly gained a reputation as the boldest and best of a generation of brilliant frigate captains. He blew up coastal forts, destroyed French signal stations and captured more enemy shipping than any other British naval officer operating in the Mediterranean. As Lord Collingwood reported to the Admiralty: ‘Nothing can exceed the zeal and activity with which his lordship pursues the enemy. The success which attends his enterprises clearly indicates with what skill and ability they are conducted, besides keeping the coast in constant alarm – causing a general suspension of trade and harassing a body of troops employed in opposing him.’

The fireship attack of 1809 brought Cochrane international fame and on his return to England he was made a Knight of the Order of the Bath. This was the high point of his life as a naval commander and it was swiftly followed by a succession of low points. His refusal to endorse a motion of thanks in Parliament to his commander-in-chief led to Lord Gambier demanding a court martial to clear his name. The Naval High Command closed ranks, Gambier was honourably acquitted and Cochrane had added to his reputation as a troublemaker.

In 1814 he found himself involved in an audacious scheme (devised by his rogue uncle, Cochrane-Johnstone, and an adventurer called De Berenger) to defraud the London Stock Exchange. Cochrane was found guilty, fined and sent to prison. Historians, lawyers and biographers remain divided on the question of Cochrane’s innocence or guilt, but what is not in doubt is the devastating effect that the guilty verdict had on his life. The fine and imprisonment in the Marshalsea Prison was bearable, but not the disgrace and dishonour. The Prince Regent had insisted that he be stripped of the knighthood awarded to him for the Basque Roads action, and he had also lost his livelihood after being thrown out of the Navy.

At the age of 41, and in need of an income to support himself, his young wife and family, it is little wonder that he accepted the offer to take command of Chile’s patriot navy. On 12 January, 1818, the Chilean envoy in London wrote to the marine affairs minister in Chile to say: ‘I have extreme satisfaction in informing you that Lord Cochrane, one of the most famous and perhaps the most valiant seaman in Great Britain, has determined to travel to Chile in order to direct our navy and co-operate decisively in the consolidation of liberty and independence.’

Cochrane’s orders were to drive the Spanish from the Pacific. His capture of the heavily fortified naval base at Valdivia and his capturing of the Spanish frigate Esmeralda were key actions in a naval campaign that played a crucial role in the liberation of Chile and Peru from Spanish rule. In 1823 he was invited to take command of the Brazilian navy and, by a combination of coastal raids and bold acts of deception, he outwitted the Portuguese navy and liberated three provinces from Portuguese rule. Within a year Brazil had achieved independence and Cochrane was hailed as a hero and loaded with honours. His reputation as a liberator of oppressed nations led to his appointment in 1825 as commander of the Greek navy, but his role in the Greek War of Independence was minor and ineffectual, and he returned to Britain humiliated and deeply depressed.

The remaining 30 years of his life were devoted to a series of inventions and to establishing his innocence of the Stock Exchange fraud. In 1832 he received a pardon, was reinstated in the Royal Navy, and in due course was restored as a Knight of the Order of the Bath. When he died in 1860, aged 85, he was buried with considerable pomp in Westminster Abbey; the extravagantly worded inscription on his tombstone concluded that he had, ‘achieved a name illustrious throughout the world for courage patriotism and chivalry’.

During his life, and in the years following his death, Cochrane was frequently compared to Nelson, but such a comparison does him no favours: their backgrounds were very different, their naval careers had little in common, and their achievements were not remotely comparable. Nelson had the good fortune to be born at the right time so that he was in a position of relatively high command when the opportunities arose; in addition to his personal courage and his qualities as a bold tactician and an inspirational leader, he was the supreme exponent of pitched battles between fleets. Cochrane never commanded a squadron, let alone a fleet, until he arrived in South America and the circumstances and conditions there bore little resemblance to those that Nelson faced in Europe. A more meaningful comparison would be with those seamen who excelled at coastal raids such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Henry Morgan – or John Paul Jones, a fellow Scot who became an American hero, made his name with some spectacular single-ship actions, but ended his career fighting for the Russian navy.

It was Cochrane’s fate as a naval commander to spend most of his career operating on the margins of naval history and, apart from the controversial action at Basque Roads, he never had the opportunity to distinguish himself in a famous sea battle. But if his historical legacy has proved disappointing, his literary legacy has been remarkable. Even so, it has to be said that Cochrane’s life was more exciting, more full of surprises, and infinitely more extraordinary than any of the fictional works that have used it as a source of inspiration.

Courtesy of David Cordingly and The Telegraph.

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